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Can New Communication Technology Improve Communication for Social Change?
Message from Denise Gray-Felder

I’m worried. And this is not my normal, garden-variety “the world is a mess” worrying.

For several days I’ve been haunted by a recent news story. Tragic, terrible and bizarre, it is an item about yet another young child found dead in a U.S. city. It turns out that the child’s mother confessed to the murder, saying that she was “addicted to video games.” The game in particular that she is hooked on is very violent and perhaps even promotes satanic imagery.

The video game apparently “spoke” to this mother-turned-killer.

Sadly, there is little that is ”new” in news items about children killed in the United States. In most urban areas, we have become almost inured to the daily doses of killing, despair and violence. And that’s before we see the war coverage.

What worries me now, however, is how some people perceive technology—long viewed as inanimate and personality-less—to have human-like qualities. In this story the newscaster gave life-like characteristics to gaming technology; the ability to influence values and adversely affect social mores. Technology now is infused with the ability “to speak.”

Let’s analyse the use of the phrase “spoke to me.” This phrase is more often used to refer to the effect of books, religious teachings, dynamic public speakers, family teachings, etc. Generally, even the youngest child recognises that video technology has no human characteristics. It comes to you via a box and a control device: conveniently packaged fantasy. While it entertains, for the most part, and may fry a young child’s brain cells, most of us have been content to consider such technology simply mindless pleasure.

Yet, clearly when I was not looking closely, the world of communication as I knew it changed. As a society, we are apparently ready to concede what many have feared for more than a decade: That entertainment technology has power beyond our control. Power to nurture or reinforce normative social behaviours. Power to tell us what to think and do. Power to shift how neighbours interact with neighbours or mothers care for and protect their children. The power to “speak,” telling sick people to commit evil deeds.

Of course I know that the mother in this horrible story was mentally ill, and the game she was addicted to may not be the culprit. That the game “spoke” nothing. But I use this story to illustrate that “communication” now wears a new description. It has grown bigger and stronger. No longer just the purview of mass media, television or film, private or public dialogue or advocacy, communication comes in many diverse packages. Or at least it is wearing many new labels.

So why is this important? For several reasons. First, because we professional communicators must extend our knowledge to include arenas that had been off limits, or at least of limited interest to communication for development practitioners previously: gaming, social networking, personal blogging, or text messaging, for example. If such technology is now interactive—moving into the realm of dialogue and debates—then why aren’t we using it more often to do good? Surely we won’t leave this technology to the exclusive purview of commercial enterprise?

If technology can now “speak,” can it talk with and for us on tough social issues like stigma against people living with AIDS, or violence against women? Why aren’t we putting more brain power into finding ways to use such technology to dialogue with people about why they hate their neighbour who has AIDS, or why a husband has multiple partners, putting his wife in constant risk? When we need to influence or just understand why people within a defined community do what they do, can technology be used to catalyse public and private dialogue?

Surely, using technological communication might be an effective way of reaching young people enamoured with such gadgetry. For the majority of young people -- youth who are not connected to any formal networks or institutions -- using technology to dialogue with them makes a lot of sense.

I’m struck by such possibilities as I ponder the work facing the Consortium at year-end as well as in 2008. We are taking a leadership role in thinking and planning communication recommendations for the next quarter century of the world living with AIDS. aids2031, an initiative of UNAIDS, is looking for new leadership, new thinking, new research and new questions when it comes to how we must manage this pandemic, and communicate with those most at risk.

Or Education for All in Lesotho where we’re working with UNICEF and the Ministry of Education and Training to reach every Basotho citizen to make sure that she or he has at least 10 consecutive years of schooling by the year 2015. And to insure that every Basotho child not currently in school enrolls and finishes. Many of the children missing from school in this country are working as herders shepherding cattle in the mountains or as domestic workers in homes in Maseru or other urban areas. They are ostensibly “unreachable.” With communication technology, perhaps we can engage in dialogue about the importance of education with these children despite the barriers of distance or inaccessibility.

[This issue of Mazi, by the way, includes a stunning photo essay from Lesotho by CFSC network member Joanne Edgar.]

It is clear that the communication challenges we all face today and in the future will include the challenge of harnessing technology smartly. We can now use technology to hear, and to include, voices that previously were not only silent but whose faces were also invisible. With virtual communication technology such marginalisation can be minimised.

I am not suggesting techno-fantasy, to quote former University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School Dean George Gerbner, whereby anything new, slick and fast is good. Rather, I’m suggesting that we work together to find innovative ways to use new technology to make old communication processes better. I don’t dream of a world where every person has a PDA or Blackberry and the human voice is rarely heard. On the contrary: I envision a communication reality in which personal dialogue continues to be the primary way of reinforcing community values and social norms. But a reality in which such dialogue can occur face-to-face or device-to-device, or via Facebook, YouTube or Skype.

Nothing should replace true ear-to-ear communication. For it is the substance of how we learn and retain much of what is dear to us.

Nigerian scholar and educator Alfred Opubor writes about the things he learned “at his grandmother’s knee.” Both Opubor and Gerbner bemoan the decline of personal storytelling. Values once passed from generation to generation via stories told by elderly family members are now either lost or co-opted by more generic stories. Across the world, communities are losing their stories because the premium on passing them along is weakened. Instead of being told stories with love by grandmothers across the globe, far too many of our children are learning that their story should be the story that they see reflected on the movie screen or on television. According to Gerbner, this creates an unacceptable cultural environment in which a society’s stories are managed by its film and television producers instead of by its elders.

This leads to homogenisation of cultures, ethics and desires—negatively impacting the survival of indigenous cultures, languages, customs and artifacts.

For example, how many times have development workers gone into remote villages only to be greeted by kids wearing Nike sneakers and Spice Girl t-shirts? What happens to markets for local fabrics, beads, art and music when Hollywood reality takes over local cultures? And, just as importantly, do these kids from such villages grow up believing that the values and systems around them are somehow inferior to those of a culture thousands of miles away?

We, the good guys, have unprecedented opportunities—and unprecedented responsibility—to use communication technology to dialogue with people for the good of the world. Let’s get on with it.

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